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  •   Mandela: South Africa's Star Attractor

    By Phylicia Oppelt
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, July 25, 1998; Page D01

    There are few enough leaders with instant global name recognition -- Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Fidel Castro. But there are fewer still whose names incur such passion that celebrity performers fly halfway around the globe to sing "Happy Birthday." Nelson Mandela is the fortunate one. This weekend 10 international stars including LL Cool J and Dru Hill will perform at two concerts held in honor of his 80th birthday.

    This sort of pilgrimage has become routine in South Africa. Since 1994 when Mandela became president, famous faces like the Spice Girls, Princess Diana, Whoopi Goldberg, Naomi Campbell, Sting, Sidney Poitier, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Roberta Flack, UB40 and the Rolling Stones have traipsed through the country to hang with "Madiba" -- the affectionate address that denotes Mandela's Xhosa clan name.

    The star trip is to touch, kiss and be photographed with a living saint, the most famous former prisoner of our time.

    Mandela "is a trump card and makes us stand out," says Daniel Ngwepe, the South African Embassy's press secretary. "He came out of prison with no show of bitterness and set about building a new nation. South Africa is associated with the sacrifices he has made." At the same time, he says, South Africa is not a hardship tour. "It has natural beauty, an infrastructure, and there is a level of sophistication amongst South Africans," says Ngwepe. "When foreigners enter the country, they still want to find a place to eat hamburgers."

    The major attraction, though, is the all-around gushing session that inevitably develops when international stars pose with Mandela. He flatters and charms them; they cry, blush and share with the media their intimate feelings about the impact he's had on their lives.

    Whitney Houston spent the first few days of her November 1995 visit in a torrent of tears. At a welcoming event where a group of schoolchildren danced for her, Houston cried. "Before this, Africa was only a place on a map. Now it has a place in my heart. My soul has come," she told the children.

    The next day she met Mandela and the weeping started up again. As she pushed her head into his shoulder, the moment was just too great for her. With Mandela wiping away her tears, Houston sniffed: "I'm standing next to a big man."

    He described her as a priceless jewel in the apartheid struggle, prompting a fresh shower from her and a declaration: "I love you and will cherish you all my life." This was not to say, however, that Houston had ever banned sales of her albums in South Africa during apartheid.

    South Africans, who are by now used to the menagerie of celebrities who vie for Mandela's attention, have coined a phrase for the meet-Mandela phenomenon -- Madiba Magic. Maybe the Madiba-attraction lies, as Deputy President Thabo Mbeki said at a birthday banquet last Sunday, in Mandela being a symbol of hope to the world. "As the citizen of the world, the property of all humanity, we invite you to treat the world as your stage, there to continue to sing, uncaged, of freedom, of peace, of human dignity, of the eradication of human poverty, of friendship amongst the peoples."

    To be sure, the meet-Mandela hype might just be part of a the '90s desire for political causes. Richard Gere flies to Tibet every so often while Elizabeth Taylor embraces an AIDS campaign.

    But even South Africans who have become inured to celebrity jaunts recognize that Bill Cosby or Luciano Pavarotti has not been particularly eager to perform elsewhere in Africa. The country sees more international music acts in one year than the rest of the continent might in a decade.

    The past week has been particularly active. Dionne Warwick has been installed in a Mandela guest house for the past month where she has been using her influence to persuade Americans to perform at the birthday concert. She arrived with Philip Michael Thomas, who is remembered only by those who watched "Miami Vice." Other American celebrity guests over the past week included Michael Jackson, who seems to have developed a fondness for southern Africa -- it will be his second visit in as many months. "Lethal Weapon" star Danny Glover was also in the region.

    A few artists like Sting and Stevie Wonder saw Mandela's cause as their own before the end of apartheid in 1994, refusing to perform in the country before then. Others, however, can lay meager claim to supporter status. It would be a long mental haul to think of Britain's Spice Girls in connection with political activity, for example, except perhaps their statement that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is the ultimate Spice babe. Yet they, too, managed to get a photo shoot with Mandela.

    When Naomi Campbell, the British uber-babe, flew into Johannesburg International airport July last year, it was to fly into Mandela's arms.

    A notorious charmer, Mandela flirted outrageously with her while everyone smiled indulgently as he hugged her and she also wept in that beautiful-woman way; her mascara never ran.

    She told Mandela he was like sunlight and his presence was like an angel's. He said he was adopting her as his granddaughter. That was in July 1997. Campbell has been back to South Africa since for an advertising campaign and to raise money for Mandela's Children's Fund.

    Princess Diana was equally determined to meet Mandela, especially after being thwarted during his first official state visit to Britain in July 1996.

    He met the royal family -- Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, their children -- and other key players, including Tony Blair, John Major and Thatcher. But Diana was not on any guest list. Her separation from Prince Charles had made her persona non grata as far as the royal family was concerned.

    Eight months later Diana dropped in on Mandela while visiting her brother, Earl Spencer, in Cape Town. She offered Mandela her support in fighting AIDS while he charmingly said at their news conference: "I never attracted so many reporters. It's Diana who's so popular. It's not often that I meet princesses. I'm still trembling."

    And when Whoopi Goldberg was in South Africa for the filming of "Sarafina!," a banquet was held for the cast members with Mandela as guest of honor. Giving Goldberg a hug, he said: "I'm not going to wash the hand that touched hers."

    Since his release from prison, Mandela's flirtatious nature has been the source of much amusement. As a joking British reporter who once stood next to the president said: "One moment he was holding my hand and the next moment he spied a young woman across the room. Then he pushed me out of the way to chat to her."

    But there have been some male stars who have elicited the same kind of tenderness that Mandela has shown to Houston and Campbell -- like singer Stevie Wonder. Of all the celebrities, he had the most visible presence in the country during apartheid, especially after he dedicated to Mandala his 1984 Oscar for the song "I Just Called to Say I Love You." His music, including "Black Man" and "It's Wrong (Apartheid)," was banned by the South African National Broadcasting Corp. His duet with Paul McCartney, "Ebony and Ivory," was also banned for a while.

    When Wonder arrived in the country in 1996, the president took him by the hand and led him to the shade of a plum tree on the grounds of his Cape Town residence. "These days many influential people visit South Africa," Mandela said, "but we must not forget our friends who supported us in the days when almost all of the world stood with our enemy. Stevie Wonder is my son. He used his talents, fame and money to support our liberation struggle."

    South Africans can, for a while at least, expect the star-tripping to continue. At least until its miracle status becomes tarnished. Or until these celebrities find a worthier cause to hold on to -- this time it might even be another African country like Nigeria, which has taken over the mantle of the continent's pariah nation. But until then, South Africa remains the glitterati's favored haunt.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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